'Story of Forgetting' a Tale of Loss and Love
SCOTT SIMON, host:
Stefan Merrill Block's debut novel takes on an awful lot: science and fantasy, memory and forgetting and two characters, Abel Haggard and Seth Waller; one old, one a teenager; one a man with a hunchback, the other a pimpled adolescent. They're separated by hundreds of miles and seem to share nothing except perhaps the central challenge of their lives, a confrontation with Alzheimer's and a place called Isidora, a fantasy land without memory so no memory is ever lost.
I spoke with Stefan Merrill Block from our studios in New York and asked with such a multiplicity of narrator voices and times and space, what's he trying to work out in this book?
Mr. STEFAN MERRILL BLOCK (Author, "Story of Forgetting"): I do think that there's sort of a fundamental shift that's going on with the younger generation of writers right now that, you know, people who grew up with the Internet and word processing that somehow we've thought of truth in a story as taking place 10 different places at once because we have access to all these different sources of information.
So I think it's only natural that our work reflects that, and I think that's something that I really aspire to to get the feeling of how to experience reality into my fiction.
SIMON: You're 26 years old now.
Mr. BLOCK: I'm 26.
SIMON: I'd like you to read a section.
Mr. BLOCK: Absolutely.
SIMON: As we've noted, Abel Haggard is the central character, and he's - can I say he's a hunchback? And you have a section where - describing his relationship with his brother, Paul, or how he measures himself against his brother Paul who is just like Abel but handsome and accomplished, and people flock to him. Let me get you to read that if you could.
Mr. BLOCK: Absolutely. (Reading) I had for the first time begun to take note of that which marked us as different, most notably, of course, my hump. At some point, as my brother's scapuli had parted with admirable, unfailing symmetry, mine had grown askew, a bony snarl, snaring my right arm like the dead limb of a trapped wolf to be chewed away for the sake of freedom.
My hump. A part of me was in unfortunate excess, perched thereupon my shoulder, an excess that telegraphed my future paucity, the women and jobs and love and family that would be forever withheld from me.
It wasn't that I ever resented Paul. In ways, it was just the opposite. As the girls of High Plains flocked to Paul at the end of each school day, as Paul's talents for baseball and sprinting grew into legend, as Paul's sturdy, superior frame accomplished work on the farm with startling efficiency, tilling vast fields in the matter of a day, bucking chicken feed by the ton, bearing 15 gallons of milk from the barn to the house all at once.
Paul was proof of what I would have been if not for my shoulder blades' poor sense of direction, a notion both heartening and tragic. All that stood between the seemingly boundless possibilities available to my brother and my own lonely lot was a two-pound obstruction of sinew and bone.
SIMON: At the heart of the narrative sweep in the book is the presence of Alzheimer's.
Mr. BLOCK: Mm-hmm.
SIMON: And this is something that strangely brings Abel Haggard and Seth Waller, the teenager you describe, into a kind of common cause. There's a lot of science that's at the heart of this and the quality of memory.
Mr. BLOCK: I'm fascinated not just in psychology but - and I think this comes through in the book in a lot of ways - in the way that massive scientific concepts about, you know, just the essence of being in the universe have such bearing on our interpersonal relationships.
SIMON: And you have created a territory in the book called Isidora, and if I may - summary of your own words, Isidora has gone by many names. The Muslims called it al-Qadir. The Christians called it Bethesda. The Jews called it Shahakeem(ph), the Arawak tribe called it Bimini. Isidora, the most popular and enduring of its name, is coined by the Italian explorer, Pietro Martro Vandini(ph). This is a place where memory counts, where because you don't remember anything, you don't lose anything.
Mr. BLOCK: Yeah, absolutely. You know, so the Isidora fables of this imagined world where there is no memory become an intersecting text that intersects the other narratives and seems to join them in ways. Both Abel Haggard and Seth Waller, the 68-year-old hunchback and the 15-year-old science nerd were told these stories as children, so they have a dual inheritance.
They have both - they're both affected by this early onset form of Alzheimer's disease, and they both are given these stories of this mythical land called Isidora. And for me, Isidora is - it's sort of a representation of how I feel about fiction, which is to say it doesn't obey the rules of reality, but it allows us to work out our cares and fears and hopes that you couldn't work out in a literal way if you were describing reality.
So I think to express what the characters needed to express and to explore the things they needed to explore, they had to go into this kind of mythic scene.
SIMON: At the same time, you're talking about two people who have a sense that their memories, as their memory slip away, so was their life because not to have an experience that you can store and recall and assuage and delight yourself with, it's as if you haven't lived.
But Isidora - or I'm trying to fill in the blanks then - but Isidora is a place that exists in the moment, and you don't have the sense of loss that they have.
Mr. BLOCK: There's this term called retro-genesis that scientists use to describe it, which is the idea that it returns origins, that is strips away our cognitive functions in almost the exact opposite way of how a child's brain learns them.
We get the ability to form memories late, around three or four, and that's one of the first things to go, and then, you know, then we lose the ability to be social, to stand up, to sit (unintelligible), you know, your heart to beat and your lungs to breathe.
In the case of my family, you know, we have a very genetic kind of Alzheimer's, and it seems like every generation for, you know, as far back as anyone knows, and my grandmother and, you know, possibly my mother and her sisters, you know, and someday it could come for me, too.
There's a kind of - there's a feeling of pilgrimage to me, a sort of a return to the place of one's ancestors in that we all begin and end our lives in a similar oblivion.
SIMON: This must inform your book a great deal.
Mr. BLOCK: In a way, the book is no more about Alzheimer's than it is about Texas or it's about being an adolescent or an old man. These are just the things that I grew up thinking about and I was confronted with as a child. So the book that - I think the first book I wrote - and in a lot of ways, "The Story of Forgetting" feels like a sort of elegy to my childhood - stuffed with all the things that I thought about and loved and feared as a child.
SIMON: One of your characters, at one point, getting diagnosed in I think what they refer to as - you know, because a diagnosis of Alzheimer's is - I think the phrase is death by the - death to be administered in small strokes in its most demeaning form, something like that, degrading form…
Mr. BLOCK: Yeah.
SIMON: …if I'm not mistaken.
Mr. BLOCK: Right, because it is degrading, too, and this is something - you know, there can be a bliss in the oblivion. But, you know, I won't pretend - I mean, I've witnessed Alzheimer's firsthand, and in a way, there's nothing more degrading than being reduced to a child. I mean, all the meaning that we get out of our experiences is taken from us.
So there - you know, that's obviously the horror of it, but the comfort that the book has led me to is that there's also another side to it, that there is also a bliss in letting go of those things.
SIMON: Do you mind if I ask you about the dedication?
Mr. BLOCK: Absolutely.
SIMON: You say: With love for my parents, and I think I get that. Then you add: how I remember myself.
Mr. BLOCK: Yeah. It's kind of interesting because those two, you know, those two lines are set apart a bit on the page, and in a way one defines the other, doesn't it? You know, how I remember myself is with love for my parents. And when I think about my love for my parents, it makes me remember myself, I suppose.
But there's also the sense of in the stories of our lives, you know, we - a major part of the story of my life is told through the love I have for my parents and my relationship with them.
SIMON: Mr. Block, it's been good to talk to you. Thanks so much.
Mr. BLOCK: Thank you so much. This is great.
SIMON: Stefan Merrill Block, his new novel, his first, is "The Story of Forgetting."